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Pre-Occupy (2011)

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the WTO protests in Seattle. The memoirs and takes are coming hard and fast, a lot of them reflecting on the late 90s and comparing it to Occupy Wall Street, which led me to think back to that time—and how little of a dent it left on me—and about the slightly-younger generation whose identities were fundamentally shaped by it. Before Occupy, they were just unmolded clay, sacks of potatoes. After Occupy, they became literary-type-anarchists, communist-poets and normie-socialist-types, and now they shape the present moment and conversation. I ravenously consume all their cultural products and takes, but I'm largely uninterested in this group—I'm interested in that slightly older guard who are now coming out of the woodwork for the WTO anniversary. Anyway, I wrote this little thing about Occupy in 2011 for a literary magazine thats website now seems defunct, posting only so its not lost entirely.

Fall is the season for insomnia — the temperate weather coupled with the knowledge that Thanksgiving and Christmas are soon coming triggers a kind of physiological alarm, a manic desire to live the year-end. At 3:30 in the morning, after hours spent tossing and turning, I abruptly stood up and put on pants and a shirt. A magnetic tug called me toward the window. Yellow squares of light glowed from high-rise public housing buildings in the distance; the moon illuminated the low-lying cloud cover. 

For the first time since 9/11, New York felt restless, pregnant, as if something unexpected could still happen, as if at this late date we could still find new ways to live in the metropolis. I threw on my shoes and stood wavering, about to leave my bedroom, but not sure of where to go. A bar? Grand Central? Maybe a friend who’s still awake? But before a decision can be rationally made my feet took over, knowing where they want to go, animating the rest of the body to life like a stone golem. I locked my tenement deadbolt, knowing that I’m going to Zucotti.

The G train platform is always empty at this time of night, desolate like a Bergman movie. I sit on a worn-out bench. Waiting for the train, a song I haven’t thought about for a very long time appears out of nowhere. It’s a sweet little lullaby called “Sleepwalkers,” the last song on the final record by seminal North Carolina hardcore band Zegota. Named after the clandestine resistance movement to the German occupation of Poland, Zegota was a kind of magnet that young activists and radicals of the early-to-mid 2000s gathered around — the spiritual force to periodically rejuvenate the political will. The band toured the world, putting out beautiful handcrafted records on Crimethinc, the largest publisher of anarchist propaganda at the time. They played conferences, collectives, houses, and anti-globalization gatherings for around a decade before announcing that they were going on hiatus in the mid-2000s. What was billed as their last show was held in the linoleum-floored room of a church somewhere deep in Washington, D.C. after an event named the National Conference of Organized Resistance (NCOR.) The show turned out to be a cathartic moment for the hundreds of young radicals in attendance, kids too young for Seattle who would later be too old for Occupy. Their final song was a loud, exultant cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio.” The song left most of the audience in tears, the lyrics updated for the schizoid Bush years: Tin soldiers and Bush is coming / we’re finally on our own

I heard that after splitting up, the members each went on to do interesting things. The lumbering Nordic lead singer became a farmer. The bassist moved to Amsterdam and got involved in that city’s squatter’s movement. The petite, eternally-boyish guitarist (who always seemed to me like the quiet ringleader) moved to Stockholm to raise a kid. In short, they continued life on their own terms. But the quiet last song on the 2004 record Reclaim!, “Sleepwalkers” always stuck with me. It seemed like a premonition, the kind of what-will-come glimpse you get from Dostoevsky, where you can see the primordial discontent that would, 40 years later, boil over into a revolution. The soprano guitarist sing-speaks the lyrics:

I had a dream I walked the city in my sleep
and that I found my way home at last
and nothing could lead me there but the things that I believed 
and in the end it was all I needed 
to find my way back home

The night before, I had attended the occupation of Times Square with a friend, a fellow graduate of the post-Seattle anti-globalization movement — the years of the black mask, the affinity group, the pepper spray compound, the class action lawsuit. Since then, time had done its work. By tiny imperceptible degrees, we had transitioned from patchy, angry young people into dubiously-leftist adults. But the experience with the previous movement informed our view of Occupy. It was strange to look out on all the angry youth protesting for their first time without even realizing that they were just the latest segment in a lineage of angry youth that stretched back to the beginning of time, each generation isolated and alone, getting older at their own speed. 

Leaving Times Square, we ventured down to Washington Square Park. We had heard a second occupation would be opening up there. We entered the park and made our way into a General Assembly of mostly college-aged kids in the basin of the drained-out central fountain. The baby-faced facilitators were all crowded up on an elevated stone platform at the fountain’s center, like a hype crew at a hip-hop club. Hundreds of people fanned out in circles, listening and repeating their statements. The lit-up Washington Square arch framed the General Assembly meeting like a halo. There was where, late one night in 1917, Marcel Duchamp and a gang of friends had broken in and climbed to the top, releasing red balloons, popping bottles of champagne, and declaring Greenwich Village a “free and independent Republic.”

Aesthetically, something struck me as a little bit too perfect about this next wave of 21st-century activists. They had perfect, pore-cleansed skin; their clothing didn’t have any stains. These perfect embodiments of youth, brimming with confidence in their historical mission, looked like they belonged as much in a Levi’s commercial as a riot.

My impression of radicals and anarchists from the anti-globalization years was that we were demons, world-historical gargoyles, unshaven and filthy, crawling out from mysterious squat hovels to protest unaccountable international finance entities and then just as quickly disappearing, retreating back into the eaves.

A lofty, new-age rhetoric carries the Washington Square Park General Assembly forward. The facilitators repeat words like “beautiful” and “history” over and over, searing the phrases into the minds of those who’ve gathered. This moment is beautiful. This moment is history. It’s like a mantra. But even I am not made of wood. Later, when one woman says This moment is pregnant with possibility and the crowd repeats the phrase, a shudder passes through me, brought on by the truth of the statement. Donated pizzas are circulated throughout the crowd. My friend told me that the Zucotti Park occupiers get pizzas donated to them so often that the pizzeria around the corner has created a special pie named after them — the Occupy.

A constant problem for social struggles is that active participation is limited to those who have the time and energy to pursue it. There seems to have been a definitive generational rupture between the last generation and this one. The window-smashing black-blocker of 2003 is now the mellowed-out supporter of 2011, showing up at Zucotti Park only to drop off donations of books and toothpaste. In the short time that had passed since the Bush years, nearly everyone I had known (myself included) had given up activism and receded into grad school, a family, or intellectual or cultural production. Most of us burrowed into art, music, and careers, only to re-emerge from the cocoon as reluctant Obama voters in 2008. 

I remember well the sense of doomed futility in 2002, just months after 9/11, as we marched against the World Economic Forum in New York, knowing that the media would be unsympathetic and the effect would be negligible. I remember one thing in particular from the Miami Free Trade of the Americas protests in 2003. While running away from a phalanx of advancing police, I watched an unmarked van squeal to a stop in front of a guy running ahead of me. Police dressed like black-blockers jumped out, beat up the guy, and then threw him in the back of the van and drove off. His friend stopped running and became hysterical, screaming and asking where they’d taken him. The repression of popular protest in those years was brutally effective. Everyone I know left these protests with a feeling of subdued hopelessness, with a sense that none of it mattered. As a friend of mine from that time put it recently, “Now it feels like none of that stuff ever even happened.”
It should be noted that in terms of sheer numbers, the post-Seattle anti-globalization mobilizations between 2000-2007 were each larger than any single Occupy event thus far. Why were those years so futile while Occupy has so easily caught on? As one of the organizers of Occupy, David Graeber, recounted in a conversation he had with an Egyptian activist named Dina:

All these years,” she said, “we’ve been organizing marches, rallies… And if only 45 people show up, you’re depressed, if you get 300, you’re happy. Then one day, 200,000 people show up. And you’re incredulous: on some level, even though you didn’t realize it, you’d given up thinking that you could actually win.

But to put it bluntly, the anti-globalization movement had a serious image problem. There was no way  a movement that, from the inception, branded itself as fringe ultra-left and anti-American could ever attract masses of average, family-minded Americans. At nearly ever protest, some menacing-looking black-blocker ritualistically broke a window and set something on fire. There were plenty of signs that said “Fuck America” and the mainstream media usually clustered around a lone individual burning an American flag. It seemed like the anarchists were always more concerned with being morally righteous and portraying a strong outward image of anarchism than with collaborating with other groups or actually bringing about a change. The anti-globalization movement was inefficient in that it was about following the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and Group of Twenty around the globe and protesting cities where they met. This model undermined credibility — the city leadership only had to cry “foreign anarchist agitators” and “conference-hopping activists” to justify a police crackdown. 

Occupy seems to mark a significant evolution. It seems like the early-to-mid 2000s were like the grim, nihilistic, Narodnik late 1800s compared to the current populist 1905 moment. The anti-globalization movement possessed none of Occupy’s non-violent patriotic sheen. Occupy is about starting where you are — building up a community and working on your home turf. Affinity groups are much more cautious than they were in the anti-globalization years. They sit down and discuss what they’re going to do before they do it. Inclusion and a lengthy democratic process are emphasized. This is important because if the goal is democracy, then this has to be practiced throughout. As David Graeber put it in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, “the ends and the means have to be the same.” 

New York’s Financial District takes on an altogether different character at night. I find it bewitching to wander downtown streets in those quiet predawn hours when the brokers and marauding hedge fund managers have all gone home to Staten Island and Jersey. The narrow, labyrinthine streets are more Arthur Conan Doyle than Michael Lewis: storefronts shuttered, steam pouring from grates. You can almost feel the briny old New York rising up from beneath the cobblestones. You can sense the rhythmic waves beating against the Battery just a few blocks away. At Broadway, I turned South and headed toward the matte-black Death Star skyscraper that overlooks Zucotti Park.

Framed by low clouds and the gap in the sky of the missing Trade Center, the Occupy Wall Street tent city looked like Five Points reincarnated, the rough, rakish, homesteaders’ New Amsterdam revenging itself on the sleek, technocratic future. The cops standing guard at the edges of the encampment had glazed-over eyes; they looked like bored teenagers forced to do something they don’t want to do. A few scattered groups were awake, perched on the marbled benches throughout the park, sharing cigarettes and talking in whispers. Most were asleep. A huge Marine in stripped-down fatigues paced the perimeter of the square, chain-smoking. A young man with a fiddle and old-timey clothes played softly by the 24-hour concession trucks. 

Adults have so few opportunities to watch large groups of people slumbering together. There was something deeply comforting about the experience — long-forgotten memories of a nursery, of a lock-in at church, sleeping bags strewn across slick polyurethane-coated floors. The occupiers were strewn across the park in various states of improvised comfort, bodies rolled up in crinkly blue tarps or hidden in cardboard box castles. Most slept out in the open air on that perfect fall night, lined up in mummy sleeping bags, faces poking out, eyes closed. There was something mystically subversive about it all, as if they were spending the day in occupation, but were also all meeting each other again at night on the astral plane. I found myself staring at a man as old as my grandfather sleep in a nylon sleeping bag. His face was thin and gaunt, hair shock white, skin wrinkled to leather. He looked like a cadaver and he was smiling.  

After circling the perimeter of the park a couple of times (and giving out the rest of my cigarettes), I realized there was an undeniably strange cosmic symmetry in the fact that the agglutination of human warmth and positive energy that is Occupy Wall Street had materialized just blocks away from the festering wound of negative energy that is Ground Zero.

People like to go to Occupy Wall Street because it is a tear in the commoditized social fabric of New York City. It feels good to be there. Tourists snap pictures. Residents stop by after mimosas and brunch on Saturday afternoons. But mostly, I think people go down because they are lonely. The best place to go when you’re lonely is the Temporary Autonomous Zone. You might see someone you know. You might have an interesting conversation with someone you don’t. Normally frigid social relations are warmed up and people can interact with each other on an even playing field, without the monkey of hierarchy on their backs. It’s like the YMCA of yore, the place to go when you’re feeling down, where you can pick yourself of the ground. The sense of something bursting from the earth of Lower Manhattan, of something long dead coming back to life. You too can come and bask in the warmth of the Commune.